Poems Reviewed by Peter Cowlam
The term ‘Anthropocene’ has been proposed as the definition of the geological epoch dating from the start of significant human impact on the earth, and on its ecosystems. Anthropocene is also the title of Sudeep Sen’s latest (multi-genre) book of poetry, prose and photography – published in the UK in a handsome hardback edition from Pippa Rann Books. I have a feeling this won’t be the last poetic (and literary) outcry against the ravages we inflict on our planet, with the cost not only to ourselves.
While a reversal of human rapacity is the clarion call of our era, growing louder by the day, it’s far from clear that timely correctives will be put in place sufficient to avert ultimate catastrophe. Despite the overwhelming evidence that climate change is a reality, and that dangerous levels of CO2 and methane are rising in our atmosphere, there is vested interest, there are powerful lobbies – of governments and corporations – doggedly resistant to climate treaties and any meaningful change in consumer habits. Meanwhile the globe is subject to weather extremes, coral reefs suffer bleaching, seas and rivers fill with plastic, micro-plastics enter the food chain, over-trafficked towns and cities are obliged to impose congestion and emission charges. Plastic pollution has even been detected in human placenta.
That’s the grand narrative. But what of the personal? Anthropocene is divided into nine parts, and roughly these comprise, pessimistically, a survey of the background realities of the globe as it is today, an apocalyptic vision of the world as it degenerates, the impact of the pandemic in collective and individual terms, then, as an optimistic contrast, there are skyscape photographs taken from the author’s terrace in Delhi, there is a celebration of persons, places and geological phenomena, there are the consolations of light, friendship and human togetherness, in balance with strictures imposed by nations in lockdown, with a strategy for survival of those restrictions with our mental health intact. Finally there is an epilogue.
In Part 1, the prologue, the poet is fulsome in his prose description of what he terms the ‘choreograph [of] the seasonal orchestra’, the first of many alliances of his poetic method with music (somewhere later in the book we infer music as his restorative). Frida Kahlo heads up this section, with an epigraph: ‘I paint flowers so they will not die.’ But death is the stark reality, with a reported news feature from ‘the President of the island nation of Kiribati […] informing the rest of the world that [with rising sea levels] the first country to be submerged would be theirs – and that their people would be the first “climate refugees”.’ More of the politics is touched on, with the world and its elites taking not enough notice of what is actual – the planet’s ecological crisis, with it the resurgence of fascism, the pandemic, and resulting from it the misery of enforced migration, desperate peoples dispossessed in their droves. Where once the artist celebrated nature in its colour and diversity, now there is hard descent into warnings against its destruction. The weather has certainly changed.
Part 2 begins with a plaint against human folly in its rapacity, ‘where everything is ambition, / everything is desire, everything is nothing’ (the poem ‘Disembodied’, p28). We are confronted with variants of the apocalyptic: ‘…over-heated air sucks out everything’; ‘Rain where there never was, / no rain where there [once] was.’; ‘Climate patterns [in] total disarray’; ‘…man-made havoc.’; ‘Earthquakes – overground, underground, / undersea’; ‘destruction, death’; ‘cyclone, flood, / pestilence, pollution.’; ‘Stillness, ever still – all still-born’ (‘Global Warming’, p30), and in ‘Rising Sea Levels’ (p31) there is a granite outcrop that once jutted out of the ‘ebullient’ sea, fifty metres from the shore, but is seen no more. ‘Asphyxia’, the poem on page 37, tips its hat to Eliot, in an unreal city, with a yellow fog, and yellow smoke, and urges ‘Sweet Yamuna’ (not the Thames, but a river in northern India) to run softly, till the poet of our day has ended not his song but his dirge. On page 38, in ‘Summer Heat’, macadam melts into a viscous black sea, a neem tree is bleached of its natural colour, power lines are down, in all there is limitless barrenness, while on page 39, in ‘Amaltas’, ‘sparking laburnums / […] ignite, incinerate’ under a searing 48°C. Some vision, where the city is reduced in appearance to that of a ‘glass mirage’ (‘Heat Sand’, p40), and where the science fraternity is telling us of ‘new highs’, where ‘meteorological indices shatter’ (‘Afternoon Meltdown’, p41), ‘unfinished flyovers // collapse’ (‘Concrete Graves’, p43). The contrast to excessive heat is given us in ‘Endless Rain’ (page 44), but the rain is followed by drought, then by an unstoppable monsoon (‘Shower, Wake’, p47). Examples of what ails human agency in all this is summed in bronchial disorders (the physical) and the tragedy of accentuated social division (the psychological).
Part 3, ‘Pandemic’, bears the subtitle ‘Love in the Time of Corona’, an enforced disposition Marquez (who is surely invoked) would have immediately understood. Page 54 reproduces the front page of The New York Times (a) as a mortician’s black slab (or so it seemed to this reader) and (b) a roll of the dead, names listed when the US death rate as a result of the virus was touching 100,000, responded to in ‘Obituary’ (page 55) as a conflation of ‘micro point-size fonts / on an ever inflating pandemic’. In ‘Obituary 2: Nine Pins’ (page 61) the poet names those personally he has lost to the pandemic, and amid a fourteen-haiku sequence (‘Corona Haiku’, pp62–64) the question is asked ‘will we find a more / compassionate world, after / this pandemic’s death?’ One suspects that with our current crop of leaders, and the multinationals that have got them in their pocket, we cannot bank on it. As to our mental health, ‘lockdown’s uneasy / solitude – turning into / another disease’ (page 64) does not give us hope of instant remedies, once the viral threat has passed, despite some few emollients (see Part 4, ‘Contagion’).
Part 4, ‘Contagion’. Can they salve the pain, a ‘eucalyptus steam inhalation, Ventolin sprays’, a ‘mixed concoction of ginger’, ‘black pepper, turmeric and organic honey’ (‘Implosion’, p79)? Or with these is there only ‘temporary respite’ (ibid)? Can machine technology ease the stress, with a charge of air from an electric vent? ‘I like this hellishly good blast that shakes all the embedded molecules in my bones’ (‘Icicles’, p81). ‘Fever Pitch’ (page 82), which in its epigraph recalls Thom Gunn and his man with night sweats, has its variation on that theme in an age of climate change and contagion: ‘The unknown boiling and freezing points that I hide within myself provide the ultimate enigma that even the most specialized doctors and architects find hard to map.’ Here more than ever throughout these poems we see what in the poet’s mind exists as the opposition, seldom a dialogue, between art and science. In their conflicting strategies in defining the human malaise ‘there is no room for unscientific thought’, or more fully, from ‘Heavy Water’, pp87-89)—
‘Families of electrons, protons and neutrons speed away, whirring in patterned loops, forgetting all the while that the heart of their orbit may actually feel and breathe. But in science, there is no room for unscientific thought – as if science and the arts, coolness and emotionality were mutually incompatible or different from each other.’
In a pandemic the truth of our mortality is brought closer into consciousness (‘Preparing For a Perfect Death’, p91)—
‘Get your papers in order – choose / your inheritors fairly – with love, care. // Outline clearly – who gets what, / what they are required to execute.’
And in ‘Icarus’ (pp92–93) there might even be a death wish: ‘The image of Icarus has been flying around / in my head. I cannot get rid of it….’ ‘I pray for Icarus to return to take me / away….’ But here among us earth-dwellers who have not crashed from the sky there are still life’s attractions. Instance Dinesh Khanna’s photograph on page 96, precursor to a meal (feasting, a social event), of chopped red onions, chopped red peppers and a clove of garlic on a chopping board with knives, despite the poet’s irresistible urge to make a crucifix out of the latter. ‘Corona Red’ (page 97) is the poem that accompanies (‘…is this a new metaphor of our / times?’). And after the metaphor, what are the other symptoms of our troubled era? The testing of friendships in enforced social distancing (‘Scar’, p99)? The alarming rate at which both fake news and the coronavirus replicate (‘Ghalib in the Time of Crisis’, pp100–101)? They are certainly among the leading contenders.
Part 5, subtitled ‘Skyscapes’, sees text give way to a series of photos the poet took from his terrace in Delhi, with his focus on a single subject (an horizon washed with trees, low-rise flat-roofed buildings and their attachments), under a big sky and subject to differing lighting conditions, ranging from evening twilight to cloudy to inky to fiery sunsets.
Part 6, ‘Holocene’, scientifically the interval of geologic time, approximately the last 11,700 years of Earth’s history, wherein the influence of human activity has been so profound it is deemed appropriate to ascribe its own name (cp ‘Anthropocene’). Poems in this section include a celebration of persons, places, and the terrible majesty of geological phenomena: ‘Four centuries ago, Akrotiri’s ancient site fell / grandly to volcanic death, victim of several quakes’ (‘Akrotiri’, p121). There is a homage to Derek Walcott. English hours take in a visit to Herefordshire, and with it the concretion of passing moments, with ‘…the kind of clock I want to measure time by – / time that depends / on the company of those who care – / time minutely layered / on this open windblown Herefordshire terrain…’ (‘Witherstone’, pp122–125). Another sequence of haiku (‘Undercurrents: 20 Lake Haiku’, pages 126–128) offers similar lyricism: ‘geese squeak, cormorants / dive, fish summersault…’ We are in Marseilles when, philosophically, the question is asked ‘Have these voyagers left something behind, / or are they yearning / to complete the incompleteness / in their lives?’ (‘Disembodied 2: Les Voyageurs’, p129). The section ends with ‘Disembodied 3: Within’ (page 130), and further philosophical probing: ‘…life, birth, death – / regermination, rejuvenation, nirvana.’
Part 7, ‘Consolation’, cinematically introduced by Stanley Kubrick: ‘However vast the darkness, we must supply our own light.’ In life there is hope, and in death there are hopes for an afterlife (‘Burning Ghats, Varanasi’, (pages 136–137)—
‘In the super-heated pyre, I hear another ritual pot break,
another skull crack, another soul take flight.
I see some shore-temples slow-sink
into the swallowing river –
effects of unpredictable tides and climate change
taking with them, both the mortal and the immortal –
Holocene’s carbon-footprint – its death text, unceasing.
Ashes to ashes, dust to dust –
water to heavy water, life to after-life.’
And from ‘Ganga, Rising’ (page 138)—
‘Here, there is no space for perfectly rounded pebbles or gentle musings – only large granite
outcrops can shackle the soul’s ferocity – a jagged fierceness – not harsh, yet quietly robust.’
And from ‘Shiuli | Harasingara’ (page 140)—
‘Soon the festivities, food,
prayer, will infuse everything –’
We are reminded in ‘Breastfeeding’ (page 150) of the social world and how that does not necessarily comply with the strictures of science, in that love is an imperfect equation, and similarly in ‘Air: Pankhā Pattachitra’ (page 151) are reminded of ‘the spare simplicity / of pure clean air.’ Not everything is lost.
Part 8, ‘Lockdown’. The writer has a natural, inborn, and after years of toil a disciplined strategy for dealing with the solitude and lack of social contact national lockdowns have imposed on the masses. It’s to be found in recourse to writing and reading, and has a distinct advantage over exploit and action in the world, its locus described in full in ‘Poetics of Solitude, Songs of Silence’ (pp162–165). But there are other pastimes more easily called upon: ‘words of grief; words of love, hate, wisdom. / Paper crafts its papyrus origins // journeying from tree to table / through clefts, wefts, contours, textures…’ (‘Paper T[r]ails’, p157). And what were the things we did in early childhood?
Part 9, ‘Epilogue’, is in the nature of a linked list, with prayer and meditation, closing with a chant and a cerement, and a rite of passage for the dying, where ‘breathing is a privilege’, ‘friends perish, the country buckles, airless’, sentiments which might seem pessimistic as a conclusion. However, one has only to remember how inexcusably reluctant governments, corporations, and we as individuals have been in meeting the challenge our post-industrial way of life has thrown at us, when at the same time there remains a volume of powerful voices denying human complicity in our current climate disaster, with the Holocene an inter-glacial period where warming is said to happen anyway, regardless of us. But even if that is so, the amount of CO2 and methane we are pumping into the atmosphere is measurable, and has reached proportions we know are not good for us, for other species, and for the planet in general. And for as long as that is the case, there is need for the poems of Anthropocene, and for their author, Sudeep Sen, who with his wide fanbase, and this latest offering, will not disappoint its members.
En passant Noted, throughout Anthropocene, is the author’s fondness for skeletal imagery, frequent reference to bronchial irritations, and the condition asthmatics endure in the drawing of breath. Noted too are life’s dramas in comparison with the operatic, ‘striation’ and its cognates a favourite word, and, unsurprisingly given the book’s subject matter, repeated reference to meteorological phenomena, weather events, cloud shapes, cloud formations, cloud breaks, layered skies, and as metaphysical embodiment errant clouds yearning for rain.
Sudeep Sen’s prize-winning books include: Postmarked India: New & Selected Poems (HarperCollins), Rain, Aria (A. K. Ramanujan Translation Award), Fractals: New & Selected Poems | Translations 1980–2015 (London Magazine Editions), EroText (Vintage: Penguin Random House), Kaifi Azmi: Poems | Nazms (Bloomsbury) and Anthropocene: Climate Change, Contagion, Consolation (Pippa Rann). He has edited influential anthologies, including: The HarperCollins Book of English Poetry, World English Poetry, Modern English Poetry by Younger Indians (Sahitya Akademi), and Converse: Contemporary English Poetry by Indians (Pippa Rann). Blue Nude: Ekphrasis & New Poems (Jorge Zalamea International Poetry Prize) and The Whispering Anklets are forthcoming. Sen’s works have been translated into over twenty-five languages. His words have appeared in the Times Literary Supplement, Newsweek, Guardian, Observer, Independent, Telegraph, Financial Times, Herald, Poetry Review, Literary Review, Harvard Review, Hindu, Hindustan Times, Times of India, Indian Express, Outlook, India Today, and broadcast on the BBC, PBS, CNN IBN, NDTV, AIR & Doordarshan. Sen’s newer work appears in New Writing 15 (Granta), Language for a New Century (Norton), Leela: An Erotic Play of Verse and Art (Collins), Indian Love Poems (Knopf / Random House / Everyman), Out of Bounds (Bloodaxe), Initiate: Oxford New Writing (Blackwell), and Name me a Word (Yale). He is the editorial director of AARK ARTS, editor of Atlas, and currently the inaugural artist-in-residence at the Museo Camera. Sen is the first Asian honoured to deliver the Derek Walcott Lecture and read at the Nobel Laureate Festival. The Government of India awarded him the senior fellowship for “outstanding persons in the field of culture / literature”.